General Charles Bolden may be retired from NASA, but he still knows what the agency is doing to advance the nation’s space exploration.
Giving what he called informal “remarks. I don’t have a speech,” as the keynote speaker at the South Carolina Aerospace Conference and Expo in Columbia on Tuesday, Bolden discussed several NASA projects and their potential impact.
The former Marine and astronaut mentioned that during its 18 years in space, the International Space Station always has had crew members from at least two countries: the United States and Russia.
“Even though we can’t get along down here we do incredibly well in space,” he said. “There is a lesson in that. There is a very good lesson in that.”
Bolden used the remarks to educate, as he took questions throughout the session from aerospace executives and area high school students alike. Bolden likes to inspire kids with the story of his rise from C.A. Johnson High School in Columbia to the Marine Corps to several trips to space to eventually being the head of NASA.
“They will be curious: ‘Okay, he went to C.A. Johnson. How the heck did he end up where he is today? Because I’m at C.A. Johnson or I’m at Columbia High or I’m at Dreher (High School). If he did it, I can do it.’ So that’s what I really hope will happen by my being here,” he said.
Bolden closed his remarks with a photo of 100-year-old Katherine Johnson, a NASA mathematician who rose from rural West Virginia to calculate the data necessary to send man into space. She and fellow African-American female mathematicians were featured in the 2016 film Hidden Figures. Bolden said he recently talked to Johnson after her 100th birthday and “she’s still as feisty as ever.”
More than 900 students from across South Carolina are attending the conference alongside more than 500 professionals working in the aerospace industry.
“Having the Challenger Learning Center represented here in Columbia, it’s one of 50 some-odd Challenger Learning Centers in the world… where students have an opportunity to go in and fly a space mission, simulated,” he said.
Educational opportunities are one major change in South Carolina from when Bolden was growing up in Columbia. The state’s economy was highly agricultural in the 1940s and 1950s.
“The amount of international business that now resides in the state of South Carolina dwarves what existed when I was growing up and the main reason is we didn’t have people who were qualified to take those jobs,” he said.
On the same day of Bolden’s presentation, the University of South Carolina announced it will offer a new undergraduate degree in aeronautical engineering. University President Dr. Harris Pastides made the announcement as he introduced Bolden on Tuesday.
“That’s a big step for the state of South Carolina,” he said. “If the aerospace community is going to survive we have to find a way to educate them, recruit them and retain them.”
When asked what his greatest challenge was during his career, Bolden responded, “bringing diversity and inclusion into the U.S. Marine Corps and NASA.
“Diversity without inclusion is worthless,” he said. “The technical things we can handle. It’s the people things that are hard.”